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Trees are seen after a forest fire near the village of Macao, Portugal, September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante(reuters_tickers)
By Axel Bugge
MACAO, Portugal (Reuters) - Large parts of Portugal's interior are desolate places these days, with charred trees as far as the eye can see and an acrid smell lingering in the air.
Sixty-four people died in this year's summer fires, Portugal's deadliest natural disaster in living memory. Three months after the biggest blaze, it's hard to imagine anything growing again in the hills around towns like Macao.
But the blackened terrain may hold the seeds of a plan that could not only stop the cycle of deadly fires but also rejuvenate the local economy with commercial farming and forestry projects.
At the heart of the issue lies age-old traditions in management of the land, made up mostly of small plots that have become fire hazards after they were abandoned by new generations of landholders who moved to the cities.
Locals say they need government help to merge the plots into economically viable units that will give absentee owners an incentive to build firebreaks and clear highly flammable undergrowth and wild eucalyptus trees.
"We need a big revolution to make sure this doesn't happen again but I don't know if anybody will do it," said Paula Fernandez, mayor of the village of Castelo, which was hit a day after the inferno started north of her parish in June.
Fernandez and two colleagues fought the flames themselves with a small water truck because firefighters never came. They saved the village but not the surrounding forest, part of the 45,000 hectares destroyed in this area alone in just five days.
Spurred into action by the fatalities and 1 billion euros in fire losses, the government agreed to create a legal framework around merging the plots which will include a central land registry, federal grants and tax incentives for landowners.
The Minister of Agriculture, Forest and Rural Development, Luis Capoulas Santos, told Reuters his ministry stands ready with 600 million euros for forest reform until 2020.
There will be "a generous and attractive package of tax benefits which aims to encourage and stimulate the creation of these entities," he said in an e-mail.
The details of how the system will work have yet to be finalised, however, creating concern the initiative will wither.
"The problem has been that politicians haven't been ready for our solutions. They still think the small landowners are here, clinging to their plots. They are not," said Antonio Louro, deputy mayor of Macao and architect of its land reforms.
"The only way to stop the cycle of fires every 10 to 15 years is if we break it by intervening."
Portugal's fires burned 40 percent of the total in all of the European Union this year, far more than any other country. With just 2.1 percent of the EU's landmass, Portugal was its biggest burner during 2008-16 as well, with an average of 36 percent of the total. (http://tmsnrt.rs/2jHytXm)
Locals in Macao, where 80,000 people own 42,000 hectares of land, know the story only too well: in 2003 fires burnt half the municipality and killed seven people.
Afterwards, local leaders introduced special firefighting technology, cut down trees along major roads and established a regional land registry. They had no central government help, however, and this year half its territory burnt again.
"This was an area where families had their small properties and they lived off the land. That ended in the 1970s, they left, and the owners of the land now live in the cities," said Louro. "The landscape we now have is the result of abandonment."
Jorge Silva, a Macao landowner whose property was burnt in 2003 but spared this year, says that "if we don't take advantage of this opportunity now to do this (land reform) once and for all, in 15 years we will be in the same situation."
"I don't see any other way out," he said.
Among firefighters there is no doubt that the root cause of the rapid spread of fires is rampant undergrowth, which is expensive to clear for plots of a hectare or less.
"What has to be done is land and forest management. As long as that doesn't happen we can't do much," said Pedro Jana, commander of Macao's firefighting brigade. "This is more of a question of prevention than firefighting."
Jana said he has never seen a fire as violent as the one in Pedrogao Grande this summer, with flames 40-60 metres high moving as fast as 12 km per hour, fanned by powerful winds, killing many in their cars as they tried to escape.
The fires spread mainly in the central interior region in an unusually hot, dry summer, destroying 240,000 hectares of woodland, 24 times the area of Lisbon.
Small fires are burning even now as the weather remains hot.
Louro wants to create what he calls "village companies" by combining the tiny plots into large, independently managed properties.
These units of land would be managed jointly, allowing for sharing of profits. Farm crops that traditionally grew in the valleys - lemons, pears and olives - would be reintroduced.
"We have to reintroduce these crops in the landscape in such a way that the agricultural areas divide the big blocks of forest, reducing the chances of such big fires," said Louro.
After the 2003 fires, Silva led efforts in his small village of Eiras to gather his fellow small landowners to combine their plots, collecting signatures representing a total of 1,100 hectares. He is sure he could do it again now.
"In a week I gathered them all. They told me 'deal with this because it's the only solution'. We spent 10 years presenting our project but it didn't work then. What we needed was fresh capital," said Silva.
The government's proposal is to create a new instrument for combined plots of land, known as Forest Management Entities, which will receive special tax benefits.
The entities will have to manage a minimum of 100 hectares, at least half of which must come from landowners with plots of under five hectares to encourage them to join. It will be up to local councils to make it work.
In Macao, Louro is feeling positive.
"I am convinced that in a municipality of the size of Macao, with 15 to 20 million euros we could start this process very quickly and reverse the fires," he said.
Mediterranean wildfires - http://tmsnrt.rs/2jHytXm
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)